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‘A nightmare’: Three killed, including two children, in shooting at California food festival

Three people were killed and multiple injured in a shooting July 28 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, Calif., according to police. (Video: Drea Cornejo, James Pace-Cornsilk/The Washington Post)
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GILROY, Calif. — Authorities on Monday identified the 19-year-old they said opened fire with an assault-style rifle at a food festival here a day earlier but said they did not know what motivated the bloodshed that left three people dead and a dozen others injured.

The gunman cut people down as the Gilroy Garlic Festival, a venerable tradition that annually draws tens of thousands to this small city southeast of San Jose, was winding to a close Sunday evening. Among the dead were two children: a 6-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl.

“It’s sort of a nightmare that you hope you never have to live in reality,” Scot Smithee, the Gilroy police chief, told reporters.

Police identified the gunman — who was killed in a shootout with police officers soon after the attack began — as Santino William Legan. Smithee warned that the investigation would be lengthy and complex, with no immediate obvious answers.

“It seems that this was a random act,” Smithee said Monday. “But again, we’ve got a long way to go before we can come to a determination what his motivation was.”

What is the Gilroy Garlic Festival? The massive food event has raised millions for charity.

Authorities identified one of the victims on Monday — 6-year-old Stephen Romero.

“I lost my son,” his father, Alberto Romero, told NBC Bay Area. “There’s nothing I really can do besides try to be with him until I can put him in his resting spot.”

Romero added: “My son had his whole life to live, and he was only 6.”

Officials had not released the names of the other two victims as of Monday, describing them only as a 13-year-old girl and a man in his 20s.

“Any time a life is lost, it’s a tragedy. But when it’s young people, it’s even worse,” Smithee said. “It’s very difficult.”

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Festivalgoers who escaped the shooting described a calm event giving way to sudden horror.

The first calls about a shooting came just after 5:40 p.m. on Sunday. The garlic festival — billed as “the world’s greatest summer food festival” on its website — was almost over.

Julissa Contreras was browsing at a barbecue food stand when she saw a man emerge from behind a row of tents. He wore a military-style outfit and was holding what looked like an assault rifle, she said. Four loud cracks followed.

The man was shooting “left to right and right to left,” said Contreras, who was with her father and boyfriend. “Some people immediately knew what was going on and saw the guy and ran. Some people were still sitting there unsure.”

She and her boyfriend, Mario Camargo, were separated as they sought places to hide. Both wound up near crying children and frantic parents. When the gunfire stopped, they ran for the parking lot and reunited. Camargo said he saw two injured people as he fled.

“One guy was able to talk. He was saying, ‘Just go! Just go!’ ” Camargo recalled. “People were crying, screaming, running in different directions. It was complete pandemonium.”

Edward and Jane Jacobucci were working at their Garlic Grater booth when the shooting began, and she spotted the attacker.

“He was tall, young, thin; he had a camouflage outfit on with a big gun, and he was just going, ‘Boom, boom, boom!’ ” she said.

Before she knew it, she was on the ground; her husband had taken her down to protect her. “He actually threw me to the ground and just covered me, and then as soon as we heard it stop a little, we ran,” she said.

Andrea Kovach and a friend had just walked away from a line for alligator sausage when they heard the shots. They started to run, and her body tensed up.

“When you hear the shots like that, you kind of immediately go like, you’re bracing your body to be hit,” said Kovach, 23, who works at a local church.

The gunshots kept cracking through the air, followed by screams. Kovach said she had taken her friend, who is from India, to the festival to share a fundamental part of her Gilroy upbringing.

“Now this is his introduction to Gilroy,” she said.

For many across the country, this might be their introduction to Gilroy, just like many people learned the names of Parkland, Aurora, Newtown, Sutherland Springs and other communities dragged into the headlines by tragedies.

It happened again because it always happens again.

It happened here at a festival attended by celebrities, elected officials and visitors from all over. Before that, it happened at synagogues and churches, a movie theater and office buildings, on campus after campus after campus. Just a day before the Gilroy shooting, someone opened fire on a crowd gathered in Brooklyn for a community festival, killing one person and injuring 11 others.

In Gilroy, the attack targeted a marquee event dating to 1979, one that has raised millions of dollars for local schools and nonprofits.

“To have seen this event end this way, this day, is just one of the most tragic and sad things that I’ve ever had to see,” Brian Bowe, the festival’s executive director, said at a news conference.

Mayor Roland Velasco of Gilroy, Calif., spoke July 29 about a fatal shooting that occurred at an annual garlic festival. (Video: Reuters)

Smithee said security at the festival’s entrances was “very tight,” with police officers, bag searches and metal-detector wands. Investigators think the shooter cut through a fence to get inside, he said.

The shooter was firing “an assault-type rifle” he had legally purchased this month in Nevada, Smithee said. Legan was from Gilroy but possibly had been living with relatives in Nevada for a time, the police chief said. But Smithee said he did not know how long Legan had been there nor how long he had been in California.

Smithee said police officers were spread across the park when the shots were reported, which allowed for a rapid response. Less than a minute after the first call about gunshots, three officers with handguns confronted the attacker, who fired at them, Smithee said.

“In spite of the fact that they were outgunned, with their handguns against a rifle, those three officers were able to fatally wound that suspect, and the event ended very quickly,” he said.

Smithee said he thinks the officers saved lives.

“There absolutely would have been more bloodshed, I believe,” he said. “The number of people in the small area they were in, I think it’s very, very fortunate that they were able to engage him as quickly as they did.”

Attempts to reach Legan’s relatives were not successful Monday. Authorities searched a home not far from the festival where some of the shooter’s relatives are thought to live. Neighbors said he was the youngest of three boys living there and that the family seemed ordinary.

Smithee said police were looking for a possible second suspect in the case, but he said they do not have confirmation that the person fired a weapon. Some witnesses reported that the attacker had someone with him, Smithee said, but “different people gave different versions,” so they were trying to investigate what, if any, role a second person might have had.

During a later news conference, Smithee said they had located the attacker’s vehicle and obtained a search warrant for it. He also said that a 20-year-old man had posted online claiming to have “just shot up the G fest,” adding that authorities took this man into custody and were able to determine he was not involved.

Local, state and federal authorities responded to the shooting scene. On Monday, the FBI said it has an evidence recovery team of about 30 people scouring the sprawling crime scene.

“Our preeminent and principal concern at this point is motivation, ideological leanings,” Craig D. Fair, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Francisco office, said at a briefing. “Was he affiliated with anyone or any group? It still has to be ruled out, still has to be determined, at this point.”

The shooting was yet another grim reminder that these attacks can happen essentially anywhere, said Gregory Shaffer, a former FBI agent who served on the bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team.

“We do a great job in securing the critical infrastructure at sporting events, churches, schools and larger-scale public events,” he said. “But the bad guys know those are hardened targets. They’re looking for that so-called ‘soft target.’ And the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which I’ve been to several times because I was in the FBI office in San Francisco — it’s a great event, lots of fun — but it’s a soft target.”

President Trump denounced the shooter as “a wicked murderer” and praised law enforcement officers for their response. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the Senate for not advancing gun-control legislation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the shooting further showed that “nowhere is safe from this epidemic of gun violence.”

Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) said he and his wife were at the festival and were not far from the gunman when he opened fire.

“The level of gun violence in our nation is sickening,” he said in a statement. “It is an issue we must deal with not only legislatively, but spiritually and socially.”

People who escaped said what they saw will be difficult to shake. Contreras said one moment sticks with her: when she looked toward the shooter and saw children fleeing an inflatable slide, all trying to squeeze through the same tiny exit.

“I’m never going to forget that image,” she said.

Berman, Chiu and Flynn reported from Washington. Devlin Barrett, Julie Tate, Maura Judkis and Morgan Krakow in Washington and Antoinette Siu, a California-based freelance journalist, in Gilroy, contributed to this report.